FELLOWSHIP: Enjoying Love (pp. 168-176)

In the Apostles' Creed we declare our faith in the communion of saints. That means we are a community of brothers and sisters who participate in "the communion of the Holy Spirit" (2 Corinthians 13:13). It is a very different kind of community from any other that we are familiar with.

In the world there are those who lord it over others and jealously guard their possessions. Jesus speaks against this: "It will not be so among you, but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:26-28).

Jesus' words were heard and took form in the early church when believers sold their goods and gave to any in need (Acts 2:44-46). The lust for power and the idolatry of possessions were broken, and the privileges of race, class and gender were beginning to break down. Christians experienced a new oneness in Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:28). They became a society of friends who welcomed one another with affection and treated the previously despised with respect. [Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit: A Contribution to Messianic Ecclesiology (London: SCM Press, 1977), pp. 314-17.]

A Society of Friends

The experience of such open friendship is an important sacrament for encountering God's love. Our fellowship in Christ is a means of grace. Having experienced the love of God, we participate in the fellowship of the Spirit in the community of the new creation. We are joined to an open, inviting fellowship that mirrors the Trinity; and every creature is invited to find a place here. [Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981), pp. 212-22.] - This speaks to the longing of the current generation, which searches for community and yearns to become whole. [Alan J. Roxburgh, Reaching a New Generation: Strategies for Tomorrow's Church (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993), chap. 7.]

This means that God engenders love in us, binding us to him and freeing us to be ourselves, and then invites us to grow, not in isolation but in community. God gives himself to us in order to create this new community. He draws us without coercion into loving relationships. In this community, marked by mutuality and reciprocity, we become free to open ourselves to one another and share our lives. Most societies are only open to people who share a similar class and culture; our community has a membership that is thrown open to all sorts of people of all races.

The image of God was designed to be social - male and female together reflecting the social nature of the triune God (Genesis 1:26-27). In that sense the Christian fellowship constitutes a restoration of the image of God (imago dei) in us. [This is a major theme in Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994).] We restore the purpose of our existence as social beings and anticipate life in communion with God beyond death. Eternal life will consist in oneness with others and with the triune God. The goal of redemption is not a private salvation in isolation but a redeemed society in which love flows through personal relationships. We look for a community without threat or discrimination, without fear or hatred. The image of God in us is therefore being restored as we fellowship with God and with others.

But relationships should not be an unpleasant duty that we attend to unwillingly. Recluses are hiding from life, and they need to be freed and healed. Participation in the Spirit should cause us increasingly to welcome opportunities to participate in community - to contribute and pray, to sing and worship as anticipations of the coming world.

Jesus was a friend of tax collectors and sinners (Luke 7:34); he treated them with affection and respect for who they were and what they could become. Similarly Jesus says that we are God's friends and we must be friends to one another (John 15:12-15). We belong to a new community of friends where everyone is welcome. It is not a closed circle or a group limited to persons like ourselves. The circle is open. As God's friends, we must be friends to everyone in the spirit of the kingdom that Jesus announced.

Fellowship is not merely an affair of the heart; it involves our body language. We express our love for one another in words and in bodily ways - when we kiss and embrace, lay hands with prayer over the sick, pass the peace and share in the Eucharistic meal. We weep with those that weep and rejoice with those who rejoice (Romans 12:15). Fellowship encompasses the whole of our life and engages the senses. Bodily acts proclaim that we love one another and value the relationship. Love has its ways of looking and acting. The kindly touch, the loving embrace, the compassionate glance are powerful gestures that convey more than can be put into words. [On the bodily gestures of love, see Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), pp. 263-67.]

Greeting friends with a hug is still a common practice in the Near East and elsewhere. There are five references to the kiss of peace in the New Testament (Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, 1 Thessalonians 5:26, 1 Peter 5:14), so evidently this was an accepted practice in the early church, The holy kiss or hug expresses acceptance, forgiveness and community among believers. It is a concrete sign of fellowship and community. It is ironic that some people who are unyielding in enforcing other biblical precepts can simply ignore five unqualified commands of Christian fellowship without sensing the inconsistency.

Kinship Groups

Churches need to foster deeper fellowship. Depth in relationships is essential for the church to be the church and for the body to minister in the power of the Spirit so that all its parts work in harmony. Shallow friendships make churches ineffective as vehicles of God's mission. A small group structure is needed to foster fellowship and deepen friendships.

Small groups, where deep levels of sharing can occur, have always been a mark of vital churches. [Howard A. Snyder, Signs of the Spirit: How God Reshapes the Church (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1989).] Relationships in church must go far beyond the hello and goodby of Sunday morning. Small groups have much to contribute by way of pastoral care, identifying gifts, bearing burdens and holding people accountable. John Wesley thought people who did not belong to a discipleship group were not serious about being Christian. [David L. Watson, The Early Methodist Class Meeting (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1985), and Covenant Discipleship: Christian Formation Through Mutual Accountability (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1991).]

Many churches focus on low-commitment rather than high-commitment meetings. In addition to the weekly celebration, there needs to be friendship for groups for in-depth fellowship, equipping us for ministry and caring support. There needs to be a network of small groups within the larger church where people can share what God is doing in their lives and relate lovingly with one another. [Howard A. Snyder, The Problem of Wineskins (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1975), chap. 11.]

Small groups provide many strengths to the larger body. Because the group is small, it can be flexible in adapting to changing circumstances. It is mobile and can meet where people are. It is inclusive and often nonhierarchical. It has no budget, no officers, nothing to promote except relationships. It is personal. It can reach people presently untouched by the church and complement what the larger body is doing. Seekers can easily enter the church through the small group. There is no structure more effective at communicating the gospel than a small group of believers meeting informally in their homes.

A church congregation is necessarily an institution. It has a street address, a phone number, regular assemblies and a constitution. But the purpose of the institution is to nurture community and promote mission. As the flowerpot exists for the plant, so the institution exists for community to flourish in many smaller groups, and it is from such communities that mission flows out to the world.

Acceptance and Transformation

Fellowship (Greek koinonia) refers to sharing the grace of God and is also a term for those who accept one another. We are forgiven people who have begun a process of being changed into Christ's likeness. We are not here because we are good people - those outside church may be nobler than we are. Much in us still needs changing, but God is not finished with us yet.

Fellowship is more then acceptance. Members of many groups have high tolerance for each other's faults. Acceptance is an important start, but fellowship also aims at transformation. Since we are being changed into God's likeness, we look at each other in the light of what we will become. Alcoholics on skid row accept one another - but they do so without expectation of change for the better. Things will only get worse until death ends the stupor. But we hope for transformation and new creation.

We are looking for a process of change by the Spirit. We trust God for this and must not try to take it over. If we manipulate persons into doing what we think is good for them, they will resist. They will not trust those who interfere. We leave God to do the changing in his own way, according to his own sequence. We do not know how to get at people's problems. We do not know the priority of corrections needed. We may think a certain fault is glaring when something deeper is the underlying problem.

In the 1950's J. B. Phillips wrote a book called Your God Is Too Small. Maybe we now need a book called Your God Is Too Fast! Too readily we try to make God operate according to our rushed schedules. In both creation and redemption God takes a lot of time. God does not seem to be in a hurry. He knows how to work in a person's life and how to pace it. A thousand years of our time is just a day for God. God goes by his own schedule.

It doesn't help when we nag people about what's wrong with them and what they should be doing next. Such interference is likely to cause resentment and do more harm than good. Faith trusts God to work holiness in his own way and in the appropriate sequence. [Richard Mouw, "Humility, Hope and the Divine Slowness," in How My Mind Has Changed, ed. James M. Wall and David Heim (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1991), pp. 21-31]

We do not see Jesus correcting the bad habits of the disciples. As we will see in a moment, he had strong words for legalists, and the epistles severely reprove false teachers, but there is mostly positive encouragement for people to exercise their priesthood. There is no nagging interference in people's lives.

This does not imply an attitude of indifference. Concern about the faults of others should be brought to God in prayer, not to them. We talk to God about the behavior that upsets us and ask the Spirit to work in the other person's life. As we go deeper in prayer conversation with God, we may catch glimpses of the hurt, abuse and deprivation that are causing the damage. The process of change can be facilitated without abusing one another's self-respect. In prayer we hand each other over to God to be changed by him. Such prayer is an expression of our faith, and it is the most loving thing we can do.

That is how Christian prayer gives loving support unobtrusively. It is the strong foundation of vital fellowship. In prayer we yield to God to do the renewing work.

Accepting Our Acceptance

Failures of Christian growth can have serious consequences but they do not put our salvation in jeopardy. When we are baptized into the fellowship, God assures us we are forgiven, and we should assure others of that too. God knows our frailty and forgives us. He does not keep an account of our sins. Although we know God forgives sins, often our hardest challenge is not being able to forgive ourselves.

Community helps us cope with this difficulty. Here we are given the assurance that we are loved and accepted, however much we fail. It is hard for us to believe in divine forgiveness unless our fellows accept us unconditionally too. When the local church expresses acceptance in its life and worship, God's love is powerfully sensed, faith is increased, and new people are drawn to Christ.

In the fellowship we are accepted and forgiven, whatever our faults. And since we have been shown such mercy, we must take care not to reject the love of God for others. If there is someone we refuse to accept, the fellowship is broken and the assurance of our own forgiveness is called in question. The Lord's Prayer reminds us of this: "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors." Later Jesus adds, "If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive your trespasses" (Matthew 6:12,14-15). God does not reject us for refusing to forgive, but our refusing to forgive has serious consequences.

When we start thinking that others owe us an apology and need to prove they are sorry, and will perform better in the future, we may be refusing to forgive a trespass. Refusal to forgive is a sickness in us. What right do we have to enjoy unmerited forgiveness if we do not extend it to others? The forgiven but unforgiving servant in the parable finds himself in deep trouble (Matthew 18:21-35).

If we forgive readily, does this mean license? No, because people reap what they sow by their actions (Galatians 6:7). God's wrath assigns consequences to our actions even while he loves and forgives us. God feels the pain of self-destructive behavior and assigns consequences. We too need to assign consequences for totally unacceptable behavior.

If someone helps herself to money out of the offering plate, we can make sure the plate is empty when it is passed to her next time. This does not contradict our continuing to love and forgive her as God does. If a man makes inappropriate sexual advances, consequences should be assigned and precautions taken. A single woman would not want to accompany this person to his apartment alone. But the person can still be loved and forgiven and can learn through this difficulty what love means.

Loving intimacy between men and women in church need not lead to immorality. Having tasted what genuine love is, we learn to view others not as objects of desire but as persons - every woman a sister and every man a brother.

Risky Business

Acceptance is risky business. Jesus' policy of open friendship led him to invite to God's banquet anyone who might choose to come. His was an accepting lifestyle that welcomed all and sundry into fellowship. The church is a school of the Spirit. A school takes in pupils who are ignorant and undisciplined at first.

But a school cannot survive long if its teachers reject what they are appointed to do. The same Jesus who welcomed sinners to his circle also denounced the false teachers of the law. A school for sinners needs teachers who know what is going on and who are in line with God's way of acceptance and transformation. One must distinguish between strong measures for dealing with false teachers (Romans 16:17, 2 Timothy 3:5, Titus 1:9, 2 John 10, Revelation 22:2) and the gentle treatment of ordinary disciples.

There is also a fine line between a student who is behaving badly and one who sets out to disrupt. Unruly students cannot be permitted to undermine the purpose for which the school exists. In a school, if a boy comes to class, lights up a joint and begins to sell drugs during class, even the most accepting teacher must send the student to the principal. On one occasion Paul had to exclude a man from the congregation on account of flagrant sexual sins, but even then Paul's stated goal was restoration (1 Corinthians 5:1-5; 2 Corinthians 2:5-11).

The Body of Christ

The church is pictured as a body with different members and limbs. Belonging to church means having a function in the community. There are lists of these functions in the New Testament, lists of the kinds of things members might find themselves doing (Romans 12:4-8, Ephesians 4:7-12). The Spirit apportions a variety of gifts among those who are ready to function as members of the body (1 Corinthians 12:4-11). It is important for us to welcome the full variety of gifts and release their potential.

The Spirit has quickened and gifted us all, each in his or her own way. We all have our own charisma from God. Among the endowments there are everyday gifts of ordinary life as well as more unusual gifts. There are gifts of proclamation by male and female witnesses, gifts of service and ministry, gifts of healing and miracles that confront the dark powers and restore the abused and the broken. There are all sorts of gifts for use in ministry.

Some persons have the apostolic gift for establishing new churches, others can pray in unknown tongues, others confront the powers of death in healing prayer. No strict distinctions can be drawn between the functions of evangelistic preaching, church teaching, pastoral work and prophetic ministry. Faith may be expressed in gifts of serving, in music, in showing mercy, in praying and caring for the sick. These are all different ways in which the Spirit is manifested in the community.

The gift of speaking in other tongues is valuable, though often misunderstood. Its exercise easily gives rise to charges of drunkenness and madness (Acts 2:13; 1 Corinthians 14:23). But Paul values it as a form of prayer. He makes a distinction between conscious mental prayer and the intuitive prayer of the spirit. He says that one can pray and sing with both mind and spirit (1 Corinthians 14:15). We might say one can pray from the left or the right side of the brain. Tongues happen when ordinary speech will not suffice to express what the Spirit is prompting, as when pain can only be expressed by uncontrolled weeping and joy is expressed by jumping and dancing. Resistance to this gift may testify to the limitations and lack of spontaneity of our normal forms of expression in church.

Let the tongues of the dumb be loosed - let them express what they feel. Let there be room for the expression of a rich variety of gifts and personalities in our churches. Every person should be recognized as important and encouraged to make a contribution. Let none be unemployed in our churches. This is true even of the most unlikely persons in our congregation. The disabled, for example, correspond to the crucified Christ. And children also have their place. Everyone belongs here, and there is room for all - the very strong and the very weak, rich and poor, wise and foolish.

Servant Leadership

Church ministry ought to be inclusive, not exclusive. No group should be excluded from exercising it. All are equally saved and called, and all races, classes, nationalities and genders are needed in the ministry of the church.

A congregation is weakened when a single person is ordained to order its life and the members do little more than assist this ordained person. Such a one (if hardworking) can generate a certain amount of activity. But how limited in fruitfulness are his or her efforts in comparison to the ministry of the whole body! A "one-person show" forces those who could be exercising gifts in the community to be passive. A capable minister may be able to engage in varied activity, but everyone is programmed to dance to his or her tune. We need to trust the Spirit to work through everyone and not leave ministry to a single person.

The word ministry originally meant quite menial service, but eventually it came to denote authority over, order, control. Yet Jesus was among us as one who served. Ministry means servanthood. The purpose of leadership is to equip saints for ministry. Thinking of ministry in terms of nurturing the gifts of others requires faith in the Spirit and his gifts. It also means accepting the risk of mistakes, unanticipated events and dubious manifestations of gifts of the Spirit.

God's concern about fellowship goes beyond the church. He cares about the whole world, and in it the church is a foretaste of a new humanity. God is concerned about the kingdom in a wider sense, not just the church. Therefore God delights in fellowship everywhere on every level, inside churches and outside them. God loves to make life worth living and cares about healing and reconciling people. God loves community in every form. He cares about communities in creation as well as redemption.

Practically everything is a complex of particles, the whole much greater than the sum of its parts. And God's creative love manifests a wealth of patterns and forms. The Spirit of life creates communities everywhere - families, marriages, natural and voluntary communities, action groups, self-help groups, friendships of every kind. God calls us together and is moving us toward reconciliation and resurrection.